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Living and Writing in the Natural World

Rhythms of a Human Life

A roaring bonfire in the middle of an almond orchard, talk about the stages of life, lots of wine and crystalline stars in the night sky—we must be in California! And so we were this past weekend, as we helped a friend of my wife observe her 60th birthday. A human life, like forests and planets and dreams, has a certain rhythm and track to it, and we were celebrating.

Tina and her husband Tim have an orchard outside of town. We parked between trees next to the house, observing the huge bundle of old almond trunks stacked tipi-like together in a clearing beside the house. The wines were all California, of course, and though we didn’t know many of the folks there, all were congenial and soon even Ray the Hermit was enjoying himself. Wife Tammy has been in a women’s group with Tina and another half-dozen ladies on and off for several decades, so she was more at home.

Dinner was catered by an elegant Chinese restaurant in town, and the heat from the newly-ignited bonfire made sitting outdoors in the tables between the fire and the house quite comfortable—though the alcohol content of our blood doubtless helped also in the 55 degree or so air.

After dinner Tina’s husband Tom stood next to the fire, the flickering light casting a ruddy glow to his face. A human life can be divided into 20-year segments, he claimed. The first 20 years we grow through childhood and reach a tentative adulthood, enjoying life though without learning much. From years 20 to 40 we establish ourselves, in our vocations and our self-images. Many of us contract into a long-term relationship in these years, and begin raising our own kids. We’re charting a course for ourselves, though zig-zags and dead-ends may abound. From 40 to 60 are the kick-butt years, when we finally have more or less figured things out, know what we’re doing for the most part, and if we’re lucky are very productive in our vocation. Our kids, if we have a family, grow up in spite or occasionally because of us, and enter into their own second stage.

Then comes the fourth score of years, from 60 to 80. The stage that our dear Tina is entering. We slow down a bit and savor where we’ve been and what we’ve done. We think of retirement from our vocation, perhaps. We have either figured things out reasonably well, or decided that life isn’t about figuring things out at all. We relax. Maybe we have grandkids to charm us. We enjoy life now in a different, more mellow way.

Tom invited us to celebrate Tina’s entering into this fourth stage. Unlike some of the professors and journalists in the party, Tom isn’t a wielder of words professionally, but his remarks were right on, heartfelt and full of insight. It seems clear to me that our lives have a pattern, a track. Some of us delight in being on a path etched by eons of interplay between our biology and our environment and the changes in both. Some of us rebel, at least early on, from having any constraints on us at all. Both are OK. But I think that in the long run, it’s clear that our biology—the way our bodies including our minds grow and mature and deal with what gets thrown our way—can’t be denied or bent very far.

We each have a path, a path strongly influenced by the strengths and weaknesses of body and body’s mind that we inherit from our ancestors. That path is also strongly influenced by the environment we happen to land in out of all of time and space, whether it’s the paleolithic or ancient Egypt or the French Revolution or 21st century California. We deal with what we find ourselves in the midst of, using the abilities and tools we’ve inherited from our parents (and their parents and theirs, far deep into the past). And so we live our path. And that path has certain features common to our fellows, the sequence of bundles or knots of years. I agree with Tom, that twenty, a score in Lincoln's lexicon, seems a pretty good way to bundle the years of that path.

It’s been quite a ride for me, halfway through the fourth bundle. As long-time friends and professional colleagues of Tina spoke up from the darkness around the fire, it became very clear that Tina had had quite a ride also. The night was too splendid for much speech-making, though, so we moved on to other activities. Tina’s daughter and some younger friends—and some of the not-particularly-young ladies--put on some music and danced on the porch. Others of us, mainly the guys, analyzed the upcoming Super Bowl in which our local 49ers were playing. Tammy and an accomplished star-gazer spied constellations and spoke of how scientists and Egyptians and native Americans in California thought of those masses of burning elements light-years into space from us in an almond orchard on our blue and green planet.

The bonfire burned down to a huge heap of coals. Tom threw old Christmas trees onto the coals, and the dried branches and needles exploded into flame, shooting embers far up into the sky. All heads turned, and faces were suddenly illumined in the darkness, faces filled with wonder and wreathed with smiles, whatever stage of the path that person was on. It’s good to contemplate the stages and the changes, but it’s good too to remember that we’re only a half-forgotten moment of surprise away from joy and laughter, wherever we are on the path.

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